One of the more interesting holiday offerings this season is the Classical Theatre of Harlem’s presentation of Black Nativity. Written by Langston Hughes (and billed as a “gospel song play”), the work premiered in 1961 and has since been seldom seen.
Here, the company sets the tale in a Times Square church in 1973, a time when the area was thick with pornography shops, X-rated movie houses, street hustlers, drug dealers, pimps, and prostitutes.
The show starts off well enough, introducing us to a number of colorful, if unnamed denizens of the era, especially the wonderful André De Shields as a street preacher, passing on the word of the Lord in his own inimitable style.
De Shields (who also acts as narrator for the evening, as well as the preacher of the church) is helped by a wonderful cast, which tells the story of Jesus‘ birth in various song styles including funk, soul, gospel, and a bit of blues. These songs (such as “Go Tell It On The Mountain,” “Silent Night,” and “Sweet Little Jesus Boy“) all come alive thanks to the immense vocal talents of the company, which includes members of the Shangilia Youth Choir of Kenya.
The problem is that there are two different pieces vying for space here; a story with the 1970s feel and songs from the church choir with comments from the preacher. And in many cases, the two sections don’t mesh. This is at least partly the blame of Alfred Preisser‘s somewhat lackluster direction, making the entire experience seem more than a bit disjointed.
Additionally, despite its 90-minute running time, the show very quickly begins to have a repetitive feel and starts to outstay its welcome. There is also nothing in the set to suggest either a holiday feeling (other than the occasional red and green lights) or that the action is taking place in a church. (A few such symbols would have been nice.)
Still there’s a lot to be enjoyed here. In addition to the wonderful performances from every member in the company, (standouts include Tracy Jack, Enrique Cruz DeJesus, Alexander Elisa, and Melvin Bell III), there are the lovely costumes by Kimberly Glennon, interesting signage by scenic designer Troy Hourie, depicting a bygone era of Times Square, and Tracy Jack’s very enjoyable choreography. Also in the cast are Ebony Blake, Phrye Hawkins, Laiona Michelle, Nikki Stephenson, Tryphena Wade, and Rejinald Woods.
Closes: Dec. 30, 2007
Running Time: Approximately 90 Minutes
Judd Hollander is the New York correspondent for the London publication The Stage.
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